12/05/2010 11:02 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Brain Development: How Much TV Should Children Watch?

The brains of the infant, toddler and preschooler are genetically programmed to develop most effectively when exposed to an environment which has remained essentially unchanged over the past tens of thousands of years. During this period of our evolution, early childhood was characterized by specific types of social interaction, including language exposure, social experiences leading to an understanding of self-awareness and one's role in society, as well as virtually limitless opportunities for physical play, imaginative play and creativity.

We now live in a society where these types of experiences, so critical for appropriate brain development, have been usurped by television and other electronic media. In the United States, the average time television is on in the home each day approaches seven hours. We live in a society where the number of downloads or DVDs rented each day is six million, while only three million books are checked out of libraries. The average U.S. household has 2.24 televisions, with 66 percent of U.S. homes having three or more televisions. The typical American child spends 1680 minutes watching television each week, while more than 70 percent of day care centers also have the television playing during a typical day. The average American youth spends 900 hours in school each year, but watches 1500 hours of television.

By the time the typical American child finishes elementary school, he will have witnessed 8000 murders on television, while 79 percent of Americans feel that TV violence helps precipitate real-life violent behavior. The average American child witnesses 20,000 30-second television commercials each year. Incredibly, 59 percent of Americans can name all three of The Three Stooges, while only 17 percent can name at least three Supreme Court justices.

The main areas of concern with reference to television and children are:

1. Time spent watching TV displaces other types of creative and imaginative activities.

2. Television watching discourages reading.

3. Television watching discourages exercise.

4. Television advertising increases demand for material possessions.

5. Exposure to violence on television can increase aggressive behavior in some children.

First and foremost, the most important issue with reference to children watching television is that the passive act of watching television displaces other activities in which the child could have been participating. When a child is watching television, he or she is not involved in play, not socializing with other individuals and most importantly, not receiving feedback as to the actions or consequences of his or her behavior. Television is a one-way street. According to Nielsen statistics, children between the ages of 2-5 years typically spend approximately 21.8 hours each week watching television. That works out to approximately three hours each day, or 25 percent of their time awake.

These are preschoolers, and this is the period of time when it is desperately important for these children to achieve a significant milestones in mental development, physical development and perhaps most importantly, social development -- that is, their ability to define and refine what constitutes socially appropriate behavior. This is achieved through interaction with others, including parents and caregivers, as well as other children, during play.

From the earliest moments of life, children begin to learn the fundamentals of language. The most powerful influence for effective language development are the verbal interactions with caregivers. Author Marie Winn, in her book "The Plug-In Drug," summarized the influence of television on language development by stating, "the major effects are indirect, resulting from the varied verbal experiences the child will not have had as a result of his or her time-consuming involvement with television -- the hundreds or thousands of words not spoken and responded to by another human being, the question is not asked and answered, the conversations not had."

The negative aspect of television on the first two years of brain development, in terms of displacing other activities that the child would have otherwise engaged in, are of such great concern that the American Academy of Pediatrics recently indicated that children two years and younger should not watch any television whatsoever. But despite this edict from the American Academy of Pediatrics, most parents seem to be deluded into lobbying for and seeking out television programs with appropriate content often as a matter of convenience, since television clearly serves as a babysitter of sorts for parents feeling time-constrained. But while content is clearly an important issue, the amount of time a child spends watching television is equally important, for reasons described above. The fundamental here is that when children watch television they are not in other fundamentally important activities for cognitive and social development.

1. Children need to be exploring their physical world. They need to be learning the fundamental laws of physics by manipulating objects.

2. Play becoming fantasy play is critically important for brain development. Specifically, this type of play paves the way for understanding symbolism, which is the cornerstone of reading and, indeed, mathematical skills as well.

3. Television limits a child's motivation to explore and to engage himself in creative activities. Almost without regard to television content, what is being fed into a child's brain when watching television requires very little thought and does not allow any room for questioning and the development of alternative understandings or explanations.

4. Language development also suffers in children watching television. To learn the appropriate usage of language, the child must experience appropriate responses from those around him during his attempts to use language. Children learn language by modifying their understanding based upon the responses they receive and even the corrections offered. Television does not provide this important feedback.

5. The important development of social skills, understanding the consequences of one's actions, learning to vary ones behavior in response to particular social experiences, are limited in the child who spends time watching television. There is no feedback from the television with respect to a child's behavior leading to compromise of the so-called "emotional quotient" (EQ).

6. Fantasy and creativity are critically important for appropriate brain development. The ability of a child to fantasize, to create alternative scenarios and to explore "other realities" ultimately creates a brain that can think outside the box, paving the way for the ability to achieve novel solutions to problems and creative ways of responding to academic challenges later in life. These are experiences a child has every day during creative and imaginative play. As I explained in Raise a Smarter Child by Kindergarten, creative and imaginative play ultimately creates a comfort zone in which a child is able to function, learning from his trials and errors and becoming more comfortable with the option of failure. None of this activity takes place if a child is engrossed in television where fantasies are spoon-fed and provide no opportunity for alternative explanations. Further, preschoolers typically have difficulty in differentiating between fantasy and reality. Their understanding of what constitutes the real world can be strongly influenced by what they observe on television.